Category Archives: architecture

Bombs, slums, and brightly-coloured balloons

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

Victoria/Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Bombay/Mumbai

It’s all the same for tourists and terrorists when it comes down to it: get downtown and do the sights. When Azam Amir Kasab and his fellow attackers arrived in Mumbai in November 2008, they could have been reading straight from the Rough Guide’s 24-hour essentials. First they took in the opulence of the Taj and the Oberoi, then the everyday hustle and bustle of Victoria Terminus before popping to slaughter the backpacker-Bombay-boho mix at Leopold’s Cafe. Truly, India is a Land of Contrasts. They even managed to blow up an ‘iconic’ Ambassador taxi, such is the literal iconoclasm of fundamentalists.

And then terrorism is swiftly recycled as tourism. The Taj maintains its grandeur even sealed behind a police cordon: a bored patrolman whistles his way along the covered arcade, while the red-carpeted steps are slowly swept. The half-deserted snack bar that looks out over VT’s station concourse has photos on the wall of the damage wreaked on its premises; select bullet-holes are still visible in the shuttered plate glass windows of Leopold’s on the Colaba Causeway. It’s hard to tell whether it’s historical preservation or everyday neglect, but if you get friendly with a waiter he might shift a picture on the wall to show you another bullethole, or gesture to the very spot where colleagues were murdered. It’s nearly as exciting as being asked to be in a Bollywood movie by one of the scouts that patrol the streets nearby.

Some battles are less obvious. Take ‘Mumbai’ vs ‘Bombay’. To a right-minded English person, the decolonisation of place names seems reasonable: re-establishing an indigenous geography warped by the British Empire. But then Bombay didn’t really exist before the Portuguese and British put it together: Surat was the trading port for this part of the Arabian sea. Mumbai is the Marathi way of saying Bombay: the definitive name-change was imposed on the city in 1995 by the right-wing Hinduist Shiv Sena government: ‘Mumbai’ also stands for an ethnic and religious exclusivism, and an antagonism towards North Indians and Muslims. The Sainiks are a nasty bunch all right, instigators of communal violence after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, but they also represent the defeat of India’s communists in their own constituency, the working class. While Bombay is the city of the middle classes comfortable with an imperial multiculturalism in which they occupied an upper berth, Mumbai is the city of the working and lower classes.

Both VS Naipaul in India: A Million Mutinies Now and Suketu Mehta in his more focused work of equal scope, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, begin with a visit to the street operators of the Sena, exhibiting a curious fascination with the troops of an unfamiliar force in Indian politics. These days the BJP has stolen the Sena’s Hindutva thunder on the national stage, and Narendra Modi’s a demon to best the superannuated Bal Thackeray. Even a Gandhi is in on the act: Indira’s grandson Varun, a BJP candidate in the elections has been jailed under security and hatespeech legislation for an inflammatory speech threatening to ‘cut off the hand’ raised against the Hindu majority. The English-language Indian press, written in a code-laden register reminiscent of Variety, talks of him as the ‘poster-boy’ for the ‘saffron party’.

The Bombay action starts in the slums. If you want to, you can see for yourself. We go through the back of a sweetshop and up the stairs to where a business centre shares the first floor with tiny living quarters: a wrong turn takes you into a kitchen. Through the door of a tiny office a man turns off a fan so that we can climb stairs which are practically a ladder; at the top of the stairs is the door to a cupboard-sized office where a representative of Reality Tours takes our booking for a walk through  the Dharavi slum, the location and source of child actors for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

The next day we meet our guide Ganesh at Churchgate station and take a forty-minute commuter train journey to Mahim Junction, where the slum begins, butted right up against the railway tracks, but clearly on the wrong side of them. Our view from the bridge above the station is a jumble of tin roofs stretching for miles. ‘Slum’ doesn’t do the place justice: an informal area of settlement for Gujarati potters and leather workers since the late nineteenth century, it houses nearly a million people. In contrast to downtown Colaba, where begging and street hassle are practised like theatre, during a two-hour tour of the entire area, not one person asks us for money.

What happens here is recycling. When you put your milk cartons and newspapers in a box outside your front door, you’re not ‘doing the recycling’. These people are doing the recycling, and it’s a dirty, disgusting, health-harming job. Rubbish from all over Mumbai is collected and brought here to be processed and then returned to the production cycle. The snaking plumes of smoke making their way up from the tin roofs come from waste paint burning off cans, so they can be beaten back into shape and reused. Aluminium is recycled in fires and moulded into ingots for use elsewhere. Ghee containers are cleaned in boiling water. Needless to say, no-one wears face masks or even gloves. Plastic of all sorts is thrown into noisily rattling chipping machines that shred it into tiny pieces; the pieces are boiled clean, dried and dyed, then melted and extruded into semi-rigid spaghetti which is finally chopped into tiny plastic beads which can be used as raw material in new plastic moulds. They also make the plastic chipping machines themselves in Dharavi. As we walk gingerly through the workshop in which they’re assembled, some of the machines, a lathe in particular, remind me of ones I once worked on.

Communal tensions ran higher in Dharavi after the riots of 1992-3; housing is now organised more along ethno-religious lines than it once was, and Muslim areas are festooned with crescent flags, but it’s far from a battleground. Ganesh proudly shows us a Muslim-owned factory where wooden Hindu shrines are made as an example of communal collaboration and co-operation. The wage of an industrial worker in Dharavi is between 100 and 150 rupees a day; monthly rent is about 1500. Where the factory areas have space between the hutments sufficient to stack and unload materials, the living areas are cramped and close together, the paths between buildings not much more than covered gutters where one person can just about pass another. Crowded rooms where families crouch and cook on the floor are visible through curtain doors. And somewhere in the middle of it all is a shop, clean and brightly-coloured packets of crisps and sweets hanging above the counter just like any other corner shop in India.

In commercial areas there are grocery shops, fresh produce, pharmacies, an ATM; even a cinema showing Slumdog in Tamil. NGOs have built and maintain schools: Reality Tours support one such venture with what they make from showing curious tourists this place. Since the 1990s, residency and building has been formalised to an extent: new construction requires consent by signature from neighbours. It’s not perfect: Ganesh shows us one towerblock where signatures were found forged. Construction was halted, but that didn’t stop people moving in to the half-finished building, barely any better than the shacks. For all that idiots like Brian Eno laud the ‘self-organising’ power of the informal market in slums, infrastructure and social justice remain crucial necessities.

Back in the city that the British built, the towers soar. The southern end of Bombay is a playground for ideas in Gothic decoration that make St Pancras look like the work of Mies van der Rohe. VT, or Victoria Terminus, is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, renamed like so many things in Mumbai, for a seventeenth century Marathi warrior king and scourge of the Mughals (in the same way that Balkan anti-Muslim sentiment often refers back to the ‘Turkish Yoke’, Hindutva uses the Mughal Empire as the past oppressor of a rightfully Hindu India). The station seems strangely familiar before we even step into it: from Slumdog, from the news footage of the attacks, and from documentation of Patrick Keiller’s incredible multimedia recreation of the station in Lille.

Colaba is a bubble, a heritage vacuum in the heart of the country’s busiest city, but it’s not just for the tourists. Though our hotel’s street is lined with handicraft shops, expensive cars pull up at night outside the swish-looking nightclub. Two streets away they eat tasty seekh kebabs from the vehicles’ hoods, served up from the smoking Bademiya stand. Backpackers are far from cool here: they spoil the vibe for the real cool Mumbaikers. We get asked to move on as soon as we’ve finished eating at hip sisha rooftop hangout Koyla. Shops and hotels have a lot of visible security: mustachioed men in interchangeable police-like khaki uniforms, their cloth-patch badges with a standard-issue space for the firm’s name above the word ‘security’. At the Gateway to India, photographers hold bulky photo-printers under their arm to produce instant pictures of you at the landmark. Hawkers carry enormous brightly-coloured balloons nearly as large as they are, thwacking them suggestively as you pass.

And then, Bombay as a whole is back to front. The Gateway, another Indo-gothic arch built to welcome George V, but best remembered for heralding the last departing British troops from Indian soil, stands facing not the Arabian Sea and Europe, but the bay and mainland beyond. To reach the open sea you have to first sail round the hook of Colaba. What they call the ‘back bay’ in fact faces the sea. At the top, at the end of Marine Drive, the backwash has deposited the sandy stretch of Chowpatty, Bombay’s urban beach. The wind whips up the sand, and the entrance smells vaguely of sewage, but for twenty rupees you can hire a mat to sit on, and for another twenty eat a plate of delicious pani puri standing up at the Badshah puri stall. A tiny big wheel is powered by hand: the crew grab hold of the bars at the top and then hang on and swing down to the bottom before climbing back up on the shaky-looking apparatus. The toys are on the correct scale for the children thronging the beach and braving the sea: plastic baubles and windmills on sticks. As the sun goes down behind the wall of buildings along the Walkeshwar Road, we look for a cab and all too soon it will be time to go home.

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Ruined gothic

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Like an Edwardian cinema, a Victorian train station has two parts: the frontage that welcomes you, and the hall where the business of departure is done. The front is generally shallow and tall, the shed long and low. Together they form a supine letter L. The building that faces you on the street is typically the more impressive half (such buildings’ fantasy architecture returns to haunt them: the colonisation of former cinemas by religious organisations is not limited to Pentecostal churches. Is it surprising that a former cinema once owned by Mecca Leisure has become a mosque?). But even cinema sheds are not without their merits, as watching even the most meagre arthouse fare in the Finchley Phoenix or the Duke of York’s in Brighton will show you.

So it is with the dreaming Gothic spires of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel and William Barlow’s vast single-arched train shed at St Pancras. The monumental vision of an architect, and the architectural vision of an engineer combine gloriously (engineer Brunel alone was good enough for the earlier Paddington). But alas, now split between the glassed-off fortress of the Eurostar showroom and the far-off extension for the spurned Midland platforms, the undercroft filled with a standard-issue transport shopping mall, and enhanced with a Betjeman-themed pub, St Pancras has been multiplexed.

Is it possible to love gothic without also loving its abandonment? The Gothic Revival was born from the appreciation of picturesque ruins, but even a twentieth century hipster might talk of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of transcience. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Like Brighton’s West Pier which periodically burns and folds slowly into the sea, the Midland Grand gained something from its ruin and emptiness. We cherished the tiny glimpses that we caught on Open House weekends, the impassive facade we drifted past on the nightbus, even if we didn’t know what St Pancras station, like its near-namesake vital organ, was really for.

Margaret Thatcher’s London manufactured dereliction. City-based representation was stripped away, the rights of the suburbs to veto progressive transport policy were enforced, and corruption was funnelled through borough councils. This wasn’t just about a recession: even in the boom years the Tories were more interested in beginning again in the Wild East on the Isle of Dogs than the city or even the City. Though the channel tunnel rail link was signed off by Heseltine, it was only with the election of a Labour government, less than a year after the Spice Girls symbolically reopened the doors of the hotel in the Wannabe video, that the regeneration of the Midland Grand Hotel became an inevitability. As Iain Sinclair says, you can’t make policy decisions to preserve decay, but a five-star Marriott and penthouse suites promise to be as showy and tasteless as the Peyton and Byrne pastries on sale in the arcade.

Tubby little John Betjeman, St Pancras’s own Paddington Bear, holds onto his hat and gasps in awe at Barlow’s train shed. Appointed patron saint, the man who through the medium of the Victorian Society is credited with having saved the building from modern hammers. Though his heirs in the Society relish regeneration, he himself invested a very gothic wistfulness in the building, deeming it ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ (though almost certainly it was the labour economics of a building without ensuite bathrooms or central heating that did for the hotel itself). He’s a fusty figure for a fusty restoration: the author of A Subaltern‘s Love Song, is a bit too metropolitan (in the wrong way) for London today. In fact, Betjeman was at his best when satirising exactly the kind of middle-century, middle-English existence that we now use him to typify, and not just on the subject of Slough.

The dead hotel is haunted not by Betjeman but by an upstart and a ghost. The Euston Arch is the Midland Grand’s dead twin, the unsaved glory of the Euston Road, a baleful classical monstrosity borne of the architectural monomania that decreed every public building from a bank to a school should be modelled on a pagan temple. Those who would reconstruct it, return it to a zombie heritage half-life, are guilty of the same neurotic fixation with the past that led the city government of Berlin to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a facsimile of an eighteenth century palace. Rebuilding the Palast now would make as little sense. It is a building that we can now only access through memory and historical record: all that will ever happen there has happened. The construction of the lines into St Pancras itself involved the destruction of half St Pancras churchyard (under the supervision of Thomas Hardy). Should we reconstruct that too? History is human jam: you can’t make strawberries back out of it.

The upstart is Colin St John Wilson’s British library building. Though it’s the UK’s largest public building of the twentieth century, it bears a mere 10 million bricks to Scott’s 60 million (Bazalgette’s majestic shitpipes put them both to shame with 318 million). Wilson was a member of the Independent Group alongside brutalists par excellence the Smithsons, but his library is associated with the warmer nordic humanism of Alvar Aalto, and fellow Independent Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton After Blake graces the courtyard. We can tell the building is a modernist masterpiece because that eminent Palladian Prince Charles said something rude about it. He called it “an academy for secret police”, but in fact it’s Babcock House just down the road, a building of Grecian proportion, that once housed our secret services. The library may look a bit like a suburban Tesco, but with five subterranean floors extending twenty five metres down into the London clay, Wilson’s behemoth is an iceberg. Its form nobly follows its function, if only we could see the form.

If there is a single focus point for all these contradictions, it is in another structure found on the Euston Road, one also on the brink of obsolesence. Scott’s own son, George Gilbert Scott Jr died mad and cirrhotic in the Midland Grand, but Scott Jr’s son, Giles Gilbert Scott’s architectural achievements rival his grandfather’s. He designed not only Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, bringing gothic home to the modern, but also the archetypal K2 red telephone box. Whence the inspiration? From the self-designed mausoleum of a man of the other party, arch-classicist Sir John Soane, which can be found in in the undisturbed half of St Pancras Churchyard. See the echo of the curved pediment? Take a picture on your phone and text it to someone. If you’re lucky, one day it may be all you have.

The above owes a great deal to drink and conversation in the Betjeman Arms with Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane. The podcast we made on the night [mp3 | subscribe: xml]  is available on the Big Ideas website.

Mausolea and migrants

Kensal Green angel

Kensal Green angel

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
G.K. Chesterton

Is it ghoulish to go looking for a fresh grave? On Sunday we wander through Kensal Green cemetery to see if we can find where Harold Pinter was buried on Tuesday, with only ‘in the heart of’ and ‘under a tree’ as clues. There can’t be many new burials at this time of year, and we think we find it. This is what a fresh grave looks like: bare clods of pale earth, the diggings boarded and tarped. No flowers, no marker, just a rectangle of disturbed ground. A headstone won’t appear for months. Not only does it take time to cut, compose and hammer, but the sod is uneasy too. The overturned earth must settle around the bones, and a lasting memorial needs steady soil.

The cold, cold earth is not the only place to go. Like Highgate, Kensal Green has its catacombs of coffins on shelves, beneath the central chapel with its impressive hydraulic catafalque. A triple-coffin is constructed for the occupant of each loculus: a wooden box for the body is fully sealed inside a lead coffin (a plumber usually deals with the metalwork) and then placed inside a larger, decorative coffin. There are thousands (though spaces remain) beneath the chapel where West Londoners also sheltered from German bombs during the war, but you can also get your own mini-mausoleum above the ground.

Kensal Green is the first and oldest of the magnificent seven municipal cemeteries created by act of Parliament in the mid-nineteenth century. There’s a continuity in the melancholy Victorian funerary art from the tumbledown headstones of Tower Hamlets to the proud and wacky Egyptiana of Highgate west, but the character of each cemetery comes from its setting and landscape. Nunhead has hills and views, Abney Park its legendary cruisers’ undergrowth, but Kensal Green is flat and open: from the top gate you can see across most of the plain that rises alongside the Harrow Road. Looking south and across the canal vast gasometers rise and fall in the distance behind the tombstones.

The seven were the solution to London’s early Victorian burial problem, the means by which city graveyards could be closed and sanitary order established. Vaster, more ambitious schemes were proposed, including a giant pyramidal catacomb atop Primrose Hill to house five million souls (the upper levels financed by the sale of the lower in an, er, pyramid-selling scheme), to which the seven were the sane and suburban alternative. But even they have their own lost pasts, their might-have-beens. The original designs for the chapel and entrances were high Victorian gothic, but the owners spurned them for (equally bombastic in their own way) classical columns and gates. Also proposed and never built was a southern water gate where barge-borne funeral processions could arrive along the canal which runs along the south side of the cemetery.

A municipal enterprise, the cemetery itself isn’t consecrated ground, and although the majority of the imagery feels Christian (crosses and angels) there’s also plenty of Victorian classical excess, and a bit more Egyptiana (while Greek and Roman columns serve Mammon and Thanatos with equal vigour, there’s something inherently creepy about animal-headed gods and mystical eyes that suits death rather better than life). There’s also a whole system of Victorian cemetery signifiers. The broken column symbolizes the head of a family lost; a lower broken column one cut off in his prime. There are even novelty headstones. Victorian adventure novelist Mayne Reid’s is equipped with a full set of Indiana Jones style adventure equipment. One grave has been decked out in full Christmas regalia. More warmingly, one flat headstone featureless except for a small stone frog is littered with an empty champagne bottle, candles, and a ‘world’s best mum’ mug.

To die somewhere you must live there first, and Kensal Green also pays a mute kind of tribute to West London’s fluctuating and migrant communities, as well as the great and the good. At the Western end of the cemetery, there’s a Catholic extension, and a small Orthodox section too (names jump out for odd reasons: a couple of Milosevices). There’s a small welter of Italian names, and among them the strange headstone of Italian anarchist Emidio Recchioni which bears his own image, reminds us that London also welcomes political communities in exile. The would-be assassin of Mussolini and associate of Emma Goldman opened a delicatessen in Soho named ‘King Bomba’ (not for anarchist explosives but for Sicilian King Ferdinand II, hammer of the 1848 Italian revolutionaries); he was the father of late Freedom editor Vernon Richards.

Other communities are less visible. Without a keen eye for dates and old-fashioned names, many West Indians buried in Kensal Green go unnoticed. A relief of a wind-blown palm tree on one headstone offers a clue to island origins; elsewhere, the modern fashion of embedding photos of the deceased in the memorial shows many black faces at the eastern end of the main avenue. The great photographer and documenter (gallery) of West London Charlie Phillips documented many black funerals at Kensal Green: somehow the black and white photos seem to emphasise the coldness of the ground in which people born under a warm Caribbean sun were buried. There are sadder stories still. Kelso Cochrane, victim of an early racist murder in Notting Hill is also buried here.

Jamaican connections go back further than the Windrush generation. Mary Seacole is buried in the Catholic section. Marcus Garvey spent the last five years of his life in London and was originally buried here in 1940; in 1964 he was disinterred and reburied in his homeland, in the National Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica. And as if to bring round a full Ethiopian circle, here too can be found the final resting place of Ras Andargachew Messai, son-in law of Haile Selassie.

So it goes. Add Harold to the list, and when we come in future years we will pay our respects here too, and tell other tales about nurses and poets, freedom fighters and playwrights. You could fill all London with the stories of those who lie here.

A Westfield Carol

“It wasn’t even supposed to happen to Henry at all. Fate had other things in store for Henry. But so it goes: Jamie changed his shift, which meant that Daniel had to change his, which of course meant that Captain Emo changed his as well, and Henry found himself working the Christmas graveyard shift, the last night before the shops shut and everyone goes home to their families and turkeys….”

The Big Ideas podcast presents A Westfield Carol(mp3), written by me and read by Robert Kingham, with original composition by Rich Cochrane. The Big Ideas podcast (or use this iTunes link) is well worth subscribing to.

Fuck the Creative Industries

Fuck them first and foremost for their exclusiveness, for drawing a line between them and you and putting themselves on the creative side of it. Fuck them for saying that what they do counts and what you do doesn’t. Fuck them for the over-inflated notion of their own ‘creativity’.

Fuck them next because what they actually do create is awful. Acres of anxiety-inducing advertising, tedious dadrock and festering beehives of migrainous office blocks. Because it’s cancer before it’s even left the drawing board. Because they treat housing as sculpture, text like pictures and everything they do as an excuse to invite celebrities to a party.

Fuck them then because they really are an industry, an ugly, landscape-scarring, mind-polluting industry, treating talent like a mine and inspiration like dirty fuel. Fuck them again because of the frequency with which they demand subsidy and succour for their industry when they decide it’s an art. An entrepreneur wearing a t-shirt of a band you like is still an entrepreneur. And an entrepreneur is just a small maggot who wants to be a fat maggot.  One day, he’ll grow up to be a fly and shit in your food.

Fuck the creative industries because they promise to bring change, innovation and ‘disruption’ to the table before serving the same old bitter vinegar in impractically-shaped new bottles. People who think that product design ‘shapes the way we live’ should be permanently rehoused on a Midlands sink estate and mugged repeatedly until they develop better theories about the relationship between aesthetics and social formation.

An office with distressed plaster walls is still an office
An office full of folding bicycles is still an office
An office with a ping-pong table, pool table or football table in it is still an office
… and the people working in it are still drones.

Fuck them because they flood our eyes and ears with media like a backed-up sewer. Their whip pans, crash zooms and tedious electronics soundtracks are the vectors of a deadly, suffocating cholera of distraction. Their synchronised escalator adverts are a Nuremberg rally of the imagination.

Fuck their unshakeable faith in the importance of what they do. Talking to a graphic designer shouldn’t feel like talking to a Moonie. And fuck their “communities”, an insect-hive circle-jerk, a babbling repetition of the same meaningless cliches.

Fuck their ant-like colonisation of our intellectual culture. The only idea in the ‘business idea’ is the business of persuading people there’s an idea when there isn’t even a clue. They waste trees like an illegal Amazonian logger and  they waste our time as if it belonged to them: they are the windbags of superficial change.

When they call marketing poetry, they piss all over poetry
When they call conferences playful, they shit on play
They are lipstick on the mouth of a corpse

Fuck them because they think they are life, and they are only life’s dull echo.

Dangoorland

Were you ever bullied in a toilet at school, or was it something you only saw on Grange Hill? At the Westminster Academy at the Naim Dangoor Centre, which opened last year on the Harrow Road, the toilets have been designed by architects specifically to counter bullying: individual cubicles with floor-to-ceiling partitions come off a corridor with exits at both ends, making it difficult to trap or harass another kid out of sight of teachers.

Such is the level of thought that goes into the basic fabric of an Academy School. Westminster, which took its first students last year, replacing half of the North Westminster Community School (recently celebrated by the Serpentine), is open on Open House weekend. L and K opt to be shown round by a pair of enthusiastic students, while P, who has a school to build himself, and I go for the architectural tour, led by Susan Le Good of AHMM, the architects currently shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling prize for their work on the building.

It’s quite spectacular, both inside and out. Layered in rising terracotta greens and yellows on the outside, on the inside gallery floors rise around a central atrium, with a single narrow staircase linking top floor to bottom. Many of the walls are bare concrete, both to save budget on coverings, and for its thermal properties, keeping the building at an even temperature. Sound is deadened by wood wool boards and curious little acoustic baffles hanging from the ceiling everywhere, colour-coordinated with the citrus theme. The sun coming in through the atrium’s ceiling is tempered by an array of rectangular angled boards, in fact no more than painted door blanks.

Hemmed between the Harrow Road and the Westway, the building is a self-contained box: windows don’t open, keeping noise and pollution out. Air is circulated mechanically below the raised floors. Almost everything about the building is self-consciously ‘inspirational’: emblazoned on the outside walls of classrooms are quotes from everyone from Nelson Mandela to Khalil Gibran (the Academy’s prospectus opens with a quote from Malcolm X, though it’s not the one about chickens coming home to roost). On the third floor, a window gallery hosts a semi-permanent exhibition of Naoki Honjo‘s large format tilt-shift photographs of Tokyo.

The school’s curriculum and ethos is oriented around some kind of idea of global business. On one level, it seems like a totally appropriate vision for a school in which English is not the first language of 89% of the students. Transparent windows are overlaid with iconised skylines of other ‘global cities’; the back wall of the cafeteria shouts the names of a global menu, from ackee & saltfish to sushi. It’s slightly more sinister that the central atrium is known as ‘the marketplace’, and another set of windows carries a bizarre alphabetical list of financial trading terms like ‘hedge fund’ and ‘vulture capital’, as if to be uncritically learned by rote. Merits and gold stars have been replaced by Vivo Miles, a smart card identity and rewards system (the keen student guides were getting fifty apiece for their extracurricular participation). The equation of the world with world markets seems like a particularly pernicious bit of Blatcherite ideology, though Susan assures us that the kids learn the normal curriculum. I refrain from asking whether with their concentration on the global economy the kids have been upset by the credit crunch.

I also wonder (aloud), how much of the architectural thought that went into the school concentrated on the monitoring and control of students, creating an environment where nothing is unseen. It’s not just for the kids, either: there’s minimal staffroom space for the teachers, who eat and socialise with students. Another tour participant, a teacher involved in the early planning stages of the building says that on the contrary it’s all about making the students feel safe in school, a place where they haven’t always felt secure. And despite the physically and socially sealed box of the school (no leaving at lunchtime), the entrance is at least welcoming, without barriers or cardswipes. The other half of North Westminster was absorbed by the Paddington Academy. From the outside it certainly looks more like a prison than a school, and it wasn’t open for Open House.

And who is Naim Dangoor? He’s the self-proclaimed Babylonian Exilarch, ex coca-cola magnate and self-appointed leader of Iraqi jews in Britain, moved to educational philanthropy for the refuge England offered him when the pre-Saddam Ba’ath party purged Iraqi jewry. The Dangoor family stepped in to support the Academy, when the original sponsors, Chelsfield (who proposed the whole global business thing, so you can hold your stereotypes right there) dropped out.

They get a lot of bang for their sponsorship buck: Academy sponsorship involves putting up a couple of million quid, about ten percent of the capital budget, for the build itself (DCSF or whatever it’s called this week, supplies the rest in public money), and no ongoing revenue funding for maintenance, equipment teachers etc. In return, you get naming rights in perpetuity (the building is built to last fifty or more years), and the power of appointment to the school’s governing body.

The Dangoor family are members of the congregation of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Lauderdale Road, also open for Open House this weekend. It’s a Sephardi synagogue, an extension of the Bevis Marks synagogue (the oldest in England, established not long after Cromwell’s readmission of jews to England), opened in 1896 for a jewish community moving away from the East End at the same time as thousands of Ashkenazi fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe were arriving. In comparison to the more modest places of worship being established on the outskirts of the City, Lauderdale Road has an understated kind of grandeur, with a white-banded red brick exterior, brown marble columns inside and Moorish-domed ark. A cheerful man plays us choral music from iTunes on his laptop and explains the continual, social nature of a typical three-hour Saturday service at the synagogue.

I think it’ll be a while before I feel like queuing up outside the Bank of England or Lloyds of London again: sometimes just-down-the-road is the best bit of Open House.

West

I only used to come here for the Carnival. Westbourne Grove, Portobello Road and even Kensal Green were a strictly annual affair, packed streets to shuffle through, shops shut and pubs packed.

It could be a disheartening experience, too. Arriving full of energy, the first task would be to meet up with friends who were a) inevitably on the other side of the carnival and b) possessed of some kind of inexplicably degenerate musical taste. Time and again, the most beautiful sounds would boom from street corners, and I’d attempt to linger, only to be dragged forcefully along to the Ministry of Sound or Sancho Panza (if there’s anything worse than house, it’s Latin house) where I’d reluctantly shuffle around, silently hating my friends and wishing I was listening to reggae.

This tendency reached its apogee the year that I went with Rob and Sharon and we followed a techno float around the carnival route, the only float I could see whose crew and audience were entirely white (though of course hardly short of dreadlocks). It was like being the White Man in Hammersmith Palais year after year. In my mind I can still see a small, mythical static, just a few large speakers, playing roots and dub. A young man toasts while the old dreads sit around smoking collie weed and nodding slowly to the righteous riddim… of course everybody says the Carnival’s not really about reggae any more. I stopped going after the year I had to pull S out of a rowdy crowd at the Good Times system and nearly got into a fight. And that year there were only half a million people there.

If I ever ventured west out of August, the place seemed somehow naked without the floats and systems. Portobello was exotic enough for an N9 boy, with shops like Wong Singh Jones and the punky market under the Westway that wasn’t crowded with eurogoths like Camden. But visits were far and few between. Settling in Stoke Newington, Brick Lane felt more like my scene: West was even more foreign than South.

Now I find myself within spitting distance of the Westway, the top end of Portobello Road (near enough for two of us to carry a second-hand bureau home) and Maida Vale. But I’m also in a place without a name. Previously, I’ve had ‘Stoke Newington’, ‘Greenwich’ or ‘Brockley’ to put between my street address and the postcode: the true sign of a Zone 2 snob is that they live not just in London but in a place with an identity of its own, often with the imaginative help of local estate agents. Here, I simply fill in my address as ‘London…’. The A-Z says ‘West Kilburn’, but Kilburn proper is more or less due north. The bus stop says ‘Maida Hill’ and we get the Wood & Vale through the door: if you bought a house round here, the estate agent’s amenities pack would have Maida Vale tube on the map but not Queen’s Park. But it’s certainly not Maida Vale: rather than ubiquitous mansion blocks, three-storey terraced houses subdivided into flats are the norm around here.

To compensate, I learn local facts. Local Fact #1: Joe Strummer played at the pub round the corner with the 101ers, before the Clash were even formed. And if there’s a ‘here’ here, it’s the Chippenham. Grocers where you can buy a red pepper at ten o’clock at night, a hardware store and a bakers, barbers and dry cleaners even. Creole, Thai and Lebanese restaurants. A constant flow of people day and night, a school and a college, bus routes into town.

At Christmas, L bought me a handful of badges with the Trellick Tower on, Erno Goldfinger’s ‘brutalist masterpiece’ that like the Barbican complex is one of the few high-rise apartment blocks to have survived London’s apocalyptic rage at elevated living to become some kind of modernist exemplar. Of course, looking casually at the image, it could just as easily be the Balfron Tower, the nearly identical one in Poplar, which Goldfinger built first and even briefly lived in to demonstrate his confidence in the new manner of housing proles. Unlikely, though: even the new new East End hasn’t reached the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach Road yet.

You see a lot of the Trellick in Much Ado About a Minor Ting, and west London is important filmic as well as musical territory. The first black British feature film, Horace Ove’s Pressure takes place along the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal. Isaac Julien’s Territories, one of the key experimental films of the 1980s, brings Carnival, race, class and the politics of local housing together in an overlapping DJ mix. It’s all a long way from the carefully restored white terraces and shopkeepers of Notting Hill. But buying a copy of Charlie Phillips dark and intriguing book of photographs Notting Hill in the Sixties (you’ll have seen his famous portrait of a mixed-race couple in the Tate’s How We Are or on the cover of London Is the Place for Me Vol.2) in the very same bookshop still trading on its moment of Hollywood fame, you realise that even radical history eventually finds its realisation in the price of a home.

But the west is no longer what it was. Take Nathan Barley. When Charlie Brooker originally wrote the character in 1999, he had West London written all over him. ‘A twenty something wannabe director living in Westbourne Grove’, he was instantly recognisable as one of the post-Trustafarian generation of moneyed pricks who had completed the cycle of regentrification of Notting Hill, filling its bars and restaurants with their self-regarding yammer. By the time of his 2005 TV debut, however, there was clearly no place for a Cunt but Shoreditch: East London had been fully transformed into the only natural habitat of privileged, posing, talentless wankers. The Mighty Boosh are exceptional in remaining funny after moving to Shoreditch, while in some kind of weird reverse-Dorian-Gray effect, Noel Fielding becomes more and more of a twat in real life.

And it’s this, at last, that makes West London liveable. Its moment is over, its history, for the moment stalled. There are no more Napoleons in Notting Hill. No panicky Harlesden-is-the-new-Willesden Time Out specials about where to live. No mass-scale conversion of dead industry into overpriced living space. It’s not unapproachably posh: some of it you can even afford to live in. Like the rest of London, council estates and Victorian housing interlock in the same easy-uneasy jigsaw. It all feels, somehow, more like real life.